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Beyond ‘winning at all costs’: shifting the narrative on female sports participation

Introduction by Croakey: The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup had an immense impact on women’s sport, with record crowd attendances and viewing numbers.

“The overall success highlights the importance of supporting women’s sport collectively and exploring solutions to remove barriers for women,” the Department of Health and Aged Care said in a statement back in September.

While media representation of women in sport is a positive thing for role-modelling and encouraging sports participation, only a handful of people become elite athletes. “Reaching elite level should not be marketed as the ultimate goal for girls who play,” according to Master of Public Health student Emma Blair.

“To keep girls in the game as long as possible, it is important to challenge the ideas that sport must be inherently competitive and ‘winning at all costs’ is the most important thing,” Blair said in her submission for the Public Health Association of Australia’s Student Think Tank competition.

The National Public Health Student Think Tank Competition run by the Public Health Association of Australia is a chance for students to showcase their innovation and enthusiasm for the field of public health.

This year, students were invited to submit a written response to address the following prompt: Describe an innovative approach to tackling a public health threat for young people in Australia. How can public health professionals drive meaningful change in the face of this challenge?

Croakey is publishing a selection of edited Think Tank submissions – bookmark this link to follow the series.


Emma Blair writes:

The recent Women’s FIFA World Cup and the Matilda’s bid for Olympic Games has seen unprecedented interest in elite women’s sport.

Quietly and at the same time, our Australian Diamonds netball team have continued to dominate at the elite level, winning the Netball World Cup this year for the 12th time and solidifying why netball continues to be the number one participation sport for women and girls in this country.

There has never been as much buzz around women’s sport as there is in 2023.

Boosting the profile of elite women’s sport plays an important role in providing role models that challenge gender stereotypes and encourage women and girls to be fit and active.

However, while better representation of women in sports media is important, it should be important for a different reason other than just to inspire young people through “you can’t be what you can’t see”.

Media coverage of elite women’s sport is often marketed towards young people in an aspirational nature: “You too can be a professional female athlete one day!”

While media representation of women in sport is always going to be a positive thing in normalising and encouraging sports participation, a converse way to think about aspirational marketing is how this impacts young girls who are not going to become professional athletes. Only a small percentage of people will become elite players.

Girls who play for fun are faced with the idea that making it to this level is the most important thing. This does not give them an incentive to continue playing sport if they do not achieve this.

This emphasis on “being the best” creates another barrier for young girls – sport is something that is inherently competitive, “I must win and if I am not good at it, what’s the point?”

Another point to think about is how extremely hard it is to become a professional athlete. Aspirational marketing may be seen to diminish the talents of the small number of women who do reach professional level.

Confidence gap

In Australia, males participate in community sport at almost twice the rate of females and one in two females will have dropped out by age 15.

It’s important to foster and encourage sports participation amongst women and girls for improved social connection, physical and mental health.

A perceived confidence gap exists between boys and girls. A 2018 study showed that while there was no noticeable difference in self-described confidence between genders until 12 years of age, by the time they reached 14, boys’ confidence was 27 percent higher than their female counterparts.

Hegemonic masculinity refers to how structural gender norms are entrenched within social practice. It relies on the dominance of men and the subordination of women. The role hegemonic masculinity plays in sport may be seen as a barrier to participation for women and girls.

Professor Raewyn Connell recognised that competitive sport is a platform in which systematic views of masculinity such as aggression, competitiveness and muscularity are constructed and promoted.

The confidence gap between boys and girls in turn becomes a barrier to participating in sport which is inherently competitive.

Shifting the narrative

Shifting how we market sports towards girls from aspirational to realistic could decrease drop out and increase new participation.

While deconstructing the hegemonic masculinity that exists within sport entirely may be a long-term goal, normalising that it is okay to not win every week and emphasising the other health benefits of sports participation is a start.

In a 2022 VicHealth podcast, Dr Erica Randle, a Senior Research Fellow in Sport and Social Impact at La Trobe University, encouraged listeners to shift how we think about the competitive nature of sport. Her experience on why young girls drop out of sport was that many were branded as “not sporty” from a young age, which in turn became their personality and deterred them from ever trying sports again.

Randle stated, “what we do when someone makes a mistake [in team sports] is so important”.

If keeping girls participating is the goal, we must change how we emphasise and promote “being the best” in sport.

Only a small number of girls will make it as professional athletes and while positive representation and role models in sport are important for different reasons, reaching elite level should not be marketed as the ultimate goal for girls who play.

Dedicated public health campaigns normalising “being obsessed with sport but not that good at it” should be developed to counteract the hegemonic masculinity that exists in sport.

To keep girls in the game as long as possible, it is important to challenge the ideas that sport must be inherently competitive and “winning at all costs” is the most important thing.

About the author

Emma Blair works in, plays and is an avid watcher of her favourite sport, netball. She is studying a Master of Public Health. Her background is in Community Services although she is currently working in sports social media marketing.

She is keenly interested in health promotion through community sport and making participation more accessible, especially for marginalised groups.


See Croakey’s archive of articles on sport.

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